The Lightning’s Troubles By the Numbers
The Lightning have a week off to reflect, which is for the best. The first 13 games have been ugly, capped off by a 5-2 loss to the Islanders on Friday night. True, the Lightning were playing their third game in four nights, but their offense has been in a malaise for too many games this season. Even though the Lightning racked up seven goals against the woeful Devils, they had not scored more than three goals (not counting the shootout goal against Boston) in seven games before that. The firepower that characterized the Lightning last season has been muted.
The speed and passing that Tampa Bay has utilized to thrash opponents is currently absent. In its place is a squad that is more fragile, with an offense that can look derivative, and a defense that at times looks aimless. But that’s the visceral impression. From a quantitative perspective, here are a few categories in which the Lightning are ailing.
Their 5v5 Goal Differential belies the Lightning’s efficacy.
On the surface, the 5v5 numbers look good. The Lightning boast a +7 goal differential in that game situation. But look a little closer and there are reasons for concern. The Lightning are 24th in 5v5 Corsi For percentage. Last season they were 9th. As has been well documented, controlling shot attempts is important for success, and it is revealing that last season all four teams in the conference finals finished in the top ten in this metric.
The same goes for the Scoring Chances metric. The Blues, Bruins, Sharks, and Hurricanes were ranked in the top nine last season, and the Lightning finished 11th. Right now, they have a -28 Scoring Chances differential at 5v5, which ranks 26th in the NHL. They are sandwiched between the Devils at 25th and the Blackhawks at 27th. That is not the company they want to be in. It doesn’t get better when you review their differential for High-Danger Scoring Chances: -11. Tampa Bay ranks 21st in that statistic. The underlying numbers reflect mediocre performance, and that is concerning because the sample size is growing.
What is going on with Nikita Kucherov?
Against the Islanders, Kucherov and Stamkos finished with one more shot attempt allowed than they created, and their Scoring Chances differential was a -4. But those poor numbers were not just the result of playing with rookie Alexander Volkov. In the first twelve games, Kucherov and Stamkos have a 47.3 percent Corsi percentage and a +3 Scoring Chances differential in 127 minutes together. They have allowed one more High-Danger Scoring Chance than they have generated. Despite playing three less games, Brayden Point has generated more Scoring Chances than either Kucherov or Stamkos.
The Bolts’ two biggest stars are struggling to control possession, and the result is that the Lightning are conceding a ton of shots. The team is currently 29th in Shots Against Per Game. If the Lightning were manufacturing an equal amount of shots as their opponents, that would be one thing. But the Lightning rank 17th in Shots For Per Game and allow approximately four more shots a game. Needless to say, this is putting a big strain on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has started poorly.
It has been a rough start for the 2018-19 Vezina Trophy winner. While the Lightning defense has been brittle, Vasilevskiy has allowed too many soft goals, and has not looked like his normal, spectacular self. His Even-Strength Save Percentage is .923, which ranks 13th among goaltenders who played eight or more games. He also ranks 26th in save percentage against opponents’ power plays with an .805 save percentage. Last season, Vasilevskiy finished fifth in the former and first in the latter. The Lightning tied for the best penalty kill in the NHL last season. Now they rank 27th in the league.
The Lightning may dismiss their early season struggles as the result of changing strategies and regression. The regression argument checks out; gravitation toward the mean was inevitable for the Bolts in many metrics. But blaming their woes on adapting to new styles of play is easy to find fault with. Okay, so the Lightning are working on their forecheck because postseason opponents understand that making the neutral zone a bottleneck kneecaps the Bolts’ rush. Progress has been slow-moving, but an arduous process will bear a better outcome, or so the thinking goes.
But the speed the Lightning demonstrate in transition has not been present at all on the forecheck and cycle. When it comes to jumping into the right spot on the forecheck or supporting the puck-carrier on the cycle, the top six have looked especially sluggish. Alex Killorn is one of the slowest forwards on the team; yet he consistently hustles to the right spots and diligently supports the puck-carrier. At what point does ineffectiveness mask lack of effort from the nucleus?
It is a similar story on defense. The forwards are perfectly capable of suffocating their opponents’ rush attack and keeping tighter gaps on the cycle. But the Lightning are inconsistent at thwarting opponents’ offensive forays, and sometimes disastrous on both fronts. Just because Stamkos and Kucherov are not creating as much does not mean they need to be hemorrhaging scoring chances. The same applies for the team’s possession woes. If they button-up their play in the neutral zone and defensive zone, Vasilevskiy’s numbers will improve.
The Lightning are languishing, and right now the “facelift” excuse buys them time. For the Bolts to start ripping off wins, they need to be faster to the puck on the forecheck and cycle, and use their vaunted speed to expose fissures in opponents’ defensive posture on the cycle. The same goes for the breakout, where the puck has been sticky for defensemen retrieving the puck or forwards who want to make a pass from the boards. There is reason to worry—because if things don’t change soon, the Lightning could fall into a hole they can’t crawl out of.